Want a Truly Sustainable Fashion Industry? Look to Couture

Fashion already knows how to solve its biggest problem — but it's up to shoppers to force the issue.

Couture Was the Original Model for Sustainability - Lead
Photo: Getty Images

Anyone who’s paying attention and not willfully burying their head in the sand is concerned about climate change. It’s the great existential crisis of our time, forcing us to rethink our relationship with everything from where we live to what we eat and even to what we wear. It’s clear that huge, high-level changes must be made to create a more sustainable future, but when it comes to fashion, what that future would look like is a source of great debate. Some companies have agreed to make themselves greener, like when Kering — the parent company of luxury brands Gucci and Saint Laurent, among others — announced a comprehensive plan to both reduce its carbon output and offset what it can’t avoid by paying carbon credits. And that seems like a wonderful start, but talk to a sustainability expert, and they’ll say we need to completely reimagine our fashion cycle, from the creation of textiles all the way to how we stock our closets. While this idea sounds novel and, frankly, pretty hard to realize, there’s already a model for more sustainable fashion in a surprising place: the world of couture.

Haute couture, by the strict French standard, must follow certain rules to even be classified as such. For example, there has to be a certain amount of skilled employees who work at each atelier, pieces are made-to-order, and a specific number of items must be created each season. Each garment is made to last forever, is meticulously sourced, and the people creating it are trained in their field and often paid well for their work. In those ways, couture is the last vestige of an older model of clothes making, one that seems about as far removed from today’s fast fashion cycle as butter-churning does to Instacart.

“I think the short of it is that the industry over the last 20 years has moved towards this industrialized mass produced model that produces way too much clothing and way too much waste,” says Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed and The Conscious Closet. “It has a huge environmental impact, because clothing is a physical product that doesn't just appear magically: It requires natural resources, energy, water to create.” But for an industry that’s all about what’s next, could looking to the past be the best way forward when it comes to sustainability?

In the 1960s, the average person bought fewer than 25 garments a year, but spent 10% of their household budget on clothing. Now, the quantity of garments has ballooned — averaging roughly 75 pieces per person per year — while the amount paid for them has shrunken to only 3.5% of their annual budget. We’re buying a lot more, for a lot less money — and the difference is often being paid by the environment. From the leftover garments that are burned or thrown away after each season (the EPA estimates 11.2 million tons of textiles end up in landfills every single year) to the vast quantities of non-renewable resources and greenhouse gas emissions that go into manufacturing, shipping, and selling clothes to the masses, fast fashion is quickly catching up to us. In contrast, couture practices what’s now come to be called “slow fashion” — a movement in which materials and labor are considered, and clothes are made to last much longer than what you might get more cheaply online.

Of course, for all of the wonderful things about couture, it’s by no means a perfect analogy. For one, it’s exorbitantly expensive, priced more like fine art than everyday wear — which it is — and it’s available only to the most elite customer base, who will likely wear each piece only once. (Not exactly eco-friendly.) And it’s not exactly financially viable for designers, either.

“Couture is not the part of a business that makes money,” says Dr. Anika Kozlowski, Assistant Professor of Fashion Design, Ethics and Sustainability at Ryerson University. “You produce other clothing for other lines, and that’s what makes your money, or a fragrance or whatever else.” She points to the fact that there are just too few haute couture clients, and they are so much richer than the average consumer, as a reason it wouldn’t be possible to scale the model throughout the industry. “What is important is the craft of it,” she says. “How can that be applied in other ways to create full fashion, to create garments that people love and cherish and want to keep?”

One major obstacle is that much of the fashion industry has made big money perpetuating and then catering to the ever-changing whims of consumers — there’s just not much impetus for completely rethinking their model. “Because of fast fashion and the low price of fashion, I think that the definition of style has changed a lot in recent years,” says Cline. “We all see style as this thing that's about newness and consumption and what's next, but it can mean something else. [When] clothes were more expensive, style was also about good fit, good quality — it was about looking really put together and not necessarily about looking new or fresh. So I think that even our definition of what is fashionable has changed because of fast fashion, and those ideas are incompatible with sustainability.”

Couture Was the Original Model for Sustainability - Lead
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Couture is made by hand, for one customer, who will presumably cherish it and repair any damage (assuming they actually wear it) rather than throwing it out. By adopting that ethos throughout our own wardrobes, we can start to envision a cleaner future for fashion. And people who can make custom clothing for one consumer exist all over the country, not just in high-end boutiques. “There's still people who custom-make clothing, and I do believe that those small-scale models are the ones that we need to nurture a lot more in order to build a more sustainable fashion industry,” says Cline. She envisions a sustainable industry as one made up of a higher percentage of these small, local creators, with the traditional industry going greener as it also becomes less integral to our shopping habits.

“I think from where we stand now, the idea of clothing being more expensive or fashion slowing down sounds sort of scary to us,” she says. “But really, in the not-so-distant past, clothes were more expensive and fashion was slower, and we were fine. I think it leaves more space for all of these other things that clothing can be about, whether it's cultivating a relationship with a tailor or dressmaker in your community, or even having a sewing circle or a mending circle.”

Changing our own habits may not feel particularly revolutionary, since individual consumers have a relatively small amount of power compared to multi-billion dollar corporations. “The amount of information that we consume on a daily basis, it's completely overwhelming,” says Kozlowski. “I don't believe that it's the responsibility of the consumer to become experts in absolutely every consumer product to even make those better choices. The government should be regulating what’s allowed to be sold.” But in an industry as trend-focused as fashion, if enough customers push for a return to better clothing, the industry may be forced to cater to that demand.

“To me, it's not individuals governing business, it's grassroots, community-based change, versus trying to tackle these businesses head-on,” says Cline. “That is the divide. You have to have the grassroots movement built in order to make that other, bigger systemic change.” And there’s movement on the issue. Cline points to companies like the Harlem-based Custom Collaborative, which trains immigrant and low-income women to open their own custom-made clothing businesses (the company even received funding from Gucci) or Alice Alexander in Philadelphia, which makes size-inclusive made-to-order clothing, as examples of how the old school, couture-ish model can be adopted for everyone.

Ultimately, returning to an older way of making and buying clothes, and doing it less often — rather than relying on the fast fashion to which we’ve grown so accustomed — isn’t going to mean the death of style as we know it. It’s just moving away from curation and consumption, to a place where true personal style dominates. Sounds haute.

We're shining a spotlight on sustainability in fashion to help spread the word: Reusing, re-purposing, and re-styling is never a bad look.

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